Monday, November 22, 2010

RKO 589: Discovering Hollywood's first Houdini film

Part I: "Paul Muni would make an ideal Houdini."

Recently I had the extreme pleasure of traveling to the Warner Bros. Corporate Archive to examine the long forgotten file on what could very well be Hollywood's first attempt to make a movie based on the life of Harry Houdini.

The file was discovered by archivist Steven Bingen, a fellow Houdini buff and all around good guy (as well as the author of the upcoming book, MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot). Steve encouraged me to have a look. He didn't have time to examine the file himself, but he was pretty certain it predated Paramount's 1936 Houdini The Great. Besides, this wasn't a Paramount project. This file had come from a box in the archives of the late great RKO Studios (and I have a particular fascination with RKO).

RKO Studios at Melrose and Gower in Hollywood (now part of Paramount)

So, early on a Monday, I set off to the massive Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center in Sun Valley, where Steve was waiting with an old file box from the vaults. From inside he pulled the thick file for "RKO 589" (the production number) and said it was very likely that no one had laid eyes on this in 50 years. He left me to have at it, and asked me to let him know if I found anything interesting.

The first thing I saw blew my mind.

Fulton Oursler
The film was to be called Now You See It, and was based on a 59-page story treatment titled The Master Magician by Fulton Oursler. It was dated September 1, 1932. Hardcore Houdini historians should recognize the name. Fulton Oursler was a noted writer and editor for Macfadden Publications (publishers of Photoplay and True Detective), who in the 1920s aided Houdini in his crusade against fraudulent mediums. He even crusaded himself, under the pseudonym Samri Frikell. Near the end of his life, Houdini confided in Oursler that he thought spiritualists were out to kill him, and warned Oursler was also on their hit list. It was Oursler who, two weeks before Houdini’s death, received the ominous and oft-quoted message from a medium who prophesied, "The waters are black for Houdini,” and “his days as a magician are over.”

I confess I didn't instantly recognize the name. But it didn't matter. A notation on an undated studio synopsis told me exactly what I needed to know about Oursler, and confirmed that I was holding something very special in my hands indeed. It read it full:

The leading character in this story is founded on Houdini, with whom Oursler was very well acquainted. An actual medium is the heavy. Oursler himself has participated in the unmasking of spirit mediums, and, if the story is approved, will cooperate in working out the technical detail in the exposure of the mediums and of certain of Houdini's tricks. The picture is designed as a mixture of mystery and melodrama with a topical atmosphere. Paul Muni would make an ideal Houdini.

Paul Muni
Paul Muni! How many times did we all wonder who might have played Houdini, had the earliest Paramount picture gone forward in the 1930s? At least with this project we know exactly whom the studio had in mind. And Muni, best known for the Howard Hughes hit Scarface, would have been a superb choice.

Unfortunately, the main character in Now You See It would not be named Houdini. Possibly there were life rights concerns. Oursler would instead call his magician Harry Pinetti. The author explained: “Houdini, whose real name was Weiss, stole his name from the master magician of the French Empire, Robert-Houdin. Penetti [sic], whose real name was Mendel, stole his name from Pinetti, the glittering court magician of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.”

In his original treatment, Oursler fleshes out the character of Pinetti in some detail. Interestingly, he does so in the past tense, clearly recalling the deceased Houdini instead of introducing a living main character. Coming from a man who knew Houdini well, Oursler's description is fascinating and revealing:

Pinetti was a truly remarkable man. He was a showman whose genius for showmanship and self-advertising, for flamboyant effects that crashed the front page, exceeded Barnum and all his tribe. Pinetti was a man of keen intelligence. Without formal schooling he had educated himself. He had a mocking sense of humor and could turn any situation to his own advantage. He was a master of the deadly art of ridicule. There was a strain of cruelty in him at such times.
Physically he was a Greek god, with muscles of an athlete and the grace of a panther. He could have been a champion wrestler or boxer, runner or jumper. He was first of all a superb human animal. He did not smoke nor drink nor swear. He was devoted to his mother and loved his wife with a tender affection of a father toward a child. But he could hate with the ferocity of a python.
His interests were boundless. He had probed into aviation, languages, music; and he had an ambition for social advancement. He wanted to have a finger in every pie and believed that he was capable of reaching the top in any field. In other words, Pinetti the Great was an egomaniac, and that was the quality that made him great. If his faith in himself were ever destroyed, his soul would be blown to smithereens. When his egotism was not crossed, he was good hearted, gentle and kind.

Fulton Oursler's original 59-page treatment for The Master 
Magician (aka Now You See It) dated September 1, 1932

Now You See It opens with the struggling Harry Pinetti performing handcuff and chain escapes in a sideshow. When he’s told his father is dying, Pinetti rushes to his side. The father assures his grief-stricken wife that their son Harry will one day pour gold into her lap. After his father dies, Pinetti’s mother implores him to give up show business. But Pinetti “tenderly refuses” and sets off on a tour of the “tank towns.”

While performing in Kennett Square, Pinetti meets the equally destitute Antonia Scott, aka “Tommy,” in a tavern. (Oursler notes: “Here I plan to show first Houdini’s expert trick of pitching his hat at a nail and never missing, even at incredible distance.”) Pinetti gives her a job in his show, testing her loyalty by hiring men to offer her bribes if she’ll reveal his secrets. He even has her kidnapped and threatened. Tommy remains loyal throughout, and her final reward is an offer of marriage.

"The Great Pinettis"
After the wedding, a theatrical manager tells the Pinettis that Europe is “crazy over mystery and magic,” and that they would do well to make the trip. To get the money for passage, Pinetti marches into a safe manufacturer’s workshop and cracks their best safe. He then tells them he’ll reveal how he did it for $5000. (Oursler notes: “If this will not play believably, other kind of incident can be substituted. The purpose is to show Houdini’s supreme trait – a boundless resourcefulness which came to full heat only when Houdini was faced with apparently insolvable difficulties.”)

Aboard ship, Pinetti amazes the passengers with his feats, including an escape from an “old Chinese torture cell.” But in Europe, Pinetti and Tommy fail to find bookings and are reduced to performing in the streets. Even his escape from a Russian Siberian Transport Prison van fails to get him bookings, when Russian authorities censor news of the escape and banish him from the country. And now the young couple has a baby.

In desperation, Pinetti aggress to be chained in a box and thrown into the Seine. The escape is a sensation, and Pinetti becomes the talk of the Folies Bergeres. Then comes an offer of $5000 a week to return to New York. Pinetti agrees only if his first week’s salary is paid in gold.

Sir Gilbert Crewe, I presume
Pinetti returns to New York and is a hit at the Palace. In the audience is the eminent British scientist, Sir Gilbert Crewe, who is also “the St. Paul of spiritualism.” Crewe believes Pinetti is a true medium. But Pinetti laughs off the suggestion, saying he believes all mediums are frauds. Pinetti receives his salary in gold and rushes home to pour it into his mother’s lap. But he is too late. She has died.

Pinetti goes into a “profound depression” and starts attending séances in hopes of reaching his late mother. But all he finds is fraud. He also starts to perform more and more dangerous escapes, to Tommy’s increasing alarm. Finally Sir Gilbert invites Pinetti to a séance with “the greatest of all mediums,” a “dangerously beautiful” young woman named Evelyn. The séance is impressive, until Pinetti shines a flashlight on the scene and exposes Evelyn as a fraud. She begs Pinetti not to publically expose her. He refuses and drives her out of town.

Pinetti becomes the great enemy of spiritualism, offering $10,000 for any manifestation he cannot reproduce. When he learns Evelyn is now performing in Washington, D.C., he travels to the capitol to introduce an anti-spiritualist bill in Congress. He puts on a raucous demonstration at the hearings, once again exposing and humiliating Evelyn, and ending his friendship with Sir Crewe. Afterwards Evelyn plots with her boyfriend, Leighton Stark, “the complete destruction of Pinetti.”

Stark kidnaps Pinetti’s son. Evelyn then informs Tommy that the boy will be released unharmed, if she tells them Pinetti’s secrets – especially the method by which he plans to escape the path of the Mercury Limited after he’s bound to the tracks by iron bands (an upcoming stunt). Worried for her son, Tommy relents and tells them all.

Houdini and his "Evelyn"
Pinetti is nearly killed in the train stunt. He escapes only by breaking his leg. (Oursler cautions: “The method he uses again involves how much exposure will be countenanced by the Society of American Magicians.”) When Pinetti returns home, he finds that Tommy has taken poison and left a suicide note confessing her betrayal. Pinetti goes after the maid, Emilie, blaming her for allowing the kidnapping. He strikes her down, leaving her in a comatose state from which doctors cannot revive her.

Mad with grief, Pinetti vows to kill Evelyn “with my own hands, slowly, painfully, pleading for mercy.” Using all his magical skills, he terrorizes her in her duplex apartment. As she swims in her rooftop pool, Pinetti pulls her underwater. Stark arrives and drains the pool, but Pinetti is gone. Pinetti then shows himself to Stark and Evelyn, “his eyes glowing with a mad light.” He tells them he’s created a “mechanical” version of himself, which is establishing an alibi 50 miles away.

As Pinetti is about to kill them both, the telephone rings. On the other end, Pinetti hears the voice of the deceased Tommy, begging him to think of their son and not commit murder. The voice from beyond snaps Pinetti back to his senses. He rushes home to find the source of the call. The doctors tell him it was the maid, Emilie, who had risen up in a “strange trance” and spoken in Tommy’s voice over the phone. Pinetti embraces his son as we FADE OUT.

Pretty wild stuff, eh? Clearly many of the episodes are taken right out of Houdini’s life, with some dramatic embellishments. Sir Gilbert Crewe is obviously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Evelyn is clearly the infamous Margery (aka Mina Crandon). And I can’t help but think about The Automaton from The Master Mystery when Pinetti speaks of his “mechanical man.” However, Houdini's expert hat-throwing skill is news to me!

Oursler's revised treatment
Perhaps the story was a bit too dark for the studio. Perhaps it was also too expensive. Instead of moving on to a screenplay, Oursler worked on a revised treatment, which he delivered October 29, 1932.

The trip to Europe was now gone. Instead, Pinetti escapes his box in San Francisco Bay. Gone too is the testing of Tommy, her suicide, and the conflict with Evelyn. In fact, the medium isn’t even in this treatment. Instead Lady Crewe gives Pinetti a séance in which she brings back his dead father. But with these missing elements also went much of story, which now ends abruptly with Pinetti coming home with his bag of gold and finding his mother dead. Oursler may have lightened the tone and cut back the scope, but this new approach did not move the project forward (it's also possible this treatment is simply unfinished).

For that, the studio would turn to a new writer, Kubec Glasmon, who penned the James Cagney hit The Public Enemy (1931). Glasmon would skillfully reconcile the two Oursler treatments and bring in even more Houdini lore. And then a third writer would attempt to resurrect the project years later, by turning Harry Pinetti into…Howard Thurston?

But we will save all that for PART II.

A very big THANK YOU to Steven Bingen for all his help in making this discovery possible. For information on the amazing Warner Bros. Corporate Archive Research Center, visit the official website.


  1. That is actually an allegory based on the life of Houdini.
    Oursler was editor of Reader's Digest, at one point.
    He had a huge hit book: "the Greatest Story Ever Told."
    My uncle, Wallace Ford, was supposed to play Houdini in a play called "the Fox."
    I never saw the script which he had kept for years, then, lost when his house got flooded.
    I think he told me that the character wasn't named Houdini, but, was Houdini.
    I wonder if that was Oursler, too?
    This was in the early thirties after his play, "the Spider," had been on Broadway.
    If he wrote "the Fox," a script may still be around somewhere.
    Hey, I think it may be the same script as "Now You See It."
    Wally told me they tried to get it on Broadway for years.
    "The Spider" was made into a movie--or two, maybe.
    Samri, Frikell, Pinetti? You could see where Oursler's heart was.
    He was also Anthony Abbott.

  2. Thank you, Pat. Was very interested in what you'd have to say about this. Great info on Oursler. I'm not sure The Fox could be the same script as Now You See It? As you'll see in my Part II, the script remained at RKO after Ourself left the project and continued to evolve. But it's clear Oursler was trying to get a Houdini story made any way he could, eh? Thanks again. Good seeing you last night.

  3. Extremely interesting stuff John. Too bad the movie wasn't made in the end. Thank you for all of your research and for sharing your findings with the rest of us. I'm eagerly awaiting Part II.

  4. Thank you, Tracy. My plan is to put Part II up on Wed. That's the plan, anyway. Still need to format.

  5. The description of the Pinetti character seems like an acute portrait of Houdini. Not just the obvious traits, like egotism, but the more subtle stuff, like loving his wife as an adult would a child.

  6. I agree, Eric. It's clearly a very personal, even psychological, description of Houdini coming from someone who knew him well. In fact, Pinetti doesn't even show most of these traits in the actual script(s).

    Part II all set to go for tomorrow.

  7. Great work, John. Thanks so much for sharing all of this. Looking forward to Part II.

  8. Thanks, Tom. You know it's my pleasure. :)

  9. Just FYI, the pic above is not that of H. and Sir Gilbert Crewe, but of Sir A.C. Doyle....

  10. Thanks, Chris. That caption was a reference to the Conan-Doyle character in the script. In it he's called "Sir Gilbert Crew." I was just trying to be clever. Maybe too clever. ;)

  11. Wondering why this old post is suddenly getting a big new wave of traffic?

  12. Looking for the quote by Oursler "we crucify ourselves between two thieves", ...the past and fear of the future.
    Is recent movie "Now you see it" related to Ourslers Houdini works?